| by Muskan Agrawal

Democracies, often praised for their stability, unveil a disquieting susceptibility to what I term ‘soft’ domestic terrorism. This multifaceted concept encompasses the propagation of hate speech, incivility, fake news, cyber troops, and election-related violence by political actors aiming to secure electoral victory during elections or disrupt a seamless transition of power post-elections. The unsettling events of the January 2021 Capitol riot in the United States, coupled with premeditated online planning, epitomize an instance of soft domestic terrorism that impeded the tranquil transfer of power. For my CTEC project as a Michael Donnelly Fellow, I analyzed four democratic nations— Chile and Japan, denoted as “full democracies,” and the United States and India, labeled as “flawed democracies” to understand what soft domestic terrorism has looked like in their respective political systems. With a focus on the manifestation of soft domestic terrorism during election periods, I endeavored to unveil both commonalities and disparities between the identified full and flawed democracies. I wanted to understand two key questions: What does the evolution and escalation of soft domestic terrorism look like during elections? And, what parallels and differences can be discerned between full and flawed democracies concerning soft domestic terrorism during election periods? This research note briefly summarizes my approach and core findings. My full paper may be found here.

In a departure from conventional wisdom, I challenge the notion that democracies inherently experience fewer instances of election violence due to their allowance for institutionalized, peaceful opposition expression. I posit that soft domestic terrorism is not merely commonplace within democratic contexts but is, in fact, an inevitable and predictable facet of these systems. Furthermore, by dissecting violence and hate speech within the framework of full and flawed democracies, I draw loose comparisons regarding the prevalence and intensity of such incidents. 

These findings necessitate a reassessment of democratic paradigms and highlight the urgency of proactive measures to address and mitigate the repercussions of soft domestic terrorism within democratic societies. The ramifications extend far beyond the realms of academia, resonating with politicians and the international community at large. The timing of this study, on the brink of over 40 countries gearing up for elections in 2024, adds a layer of urgency, offering the potential to refine protocols and techniques safeguarding votes and citizens.

Key Findings

Despite the distinct challenges presented by each case, a unifying theme emerged from my study: the necessity of a comprehensive strategy to protect democracy. Elections, rather than serving as celebratory exercises of civic duty, emerge as flashpoints for political violence, extending beyond the confines of Election Day to encompass the entire election administration process. In India, violence infiltrates not only grandiose national elections but also permeates local body elections in certain states. Incidents in India and the United States substantiate a palpable correlation between elections and escalated violence, with incidents surging during pivotal junctures. Japan, though registering fewer instances of violence in numerical terms, remains susceptible, especially as influential political figures become targets. Chile introduces a distinctive concern, with attacks increasingly targeting women candidates. The delineation between flawed and full democracies emerges as a lens through which to derive conclusions about the heterogeneous frequencies and magnitudes of soft domestic terrorism.

The impact of online communication and hate speech on the democratic fabric is a shared thread in all four cases. Whether through hashtags in Chile, hate rallies and election-related rhetoric in Japan, communal tensions in India, or the surge in xenophobic language on social media in the United States, digital platforms have transformed into arenas where divisive narratives flourish. The United States, with its transformative integration of social media into political campaigns, exemplifies the global implications of online platforms for democratic processes. The rise of identity-based appeals, the integration of extremists into advisory roles, and the use of Twitter to influence public opinion signify a transformative impact that transcends borders. Each case study emphasizes the importance of adapting democratic institutions to the digital age, fostering inclusivity, and confronting divisive forces. This investigation prompts a critical examination of the robustness of democratic frameworks and serves as a clarion call for democracies worldwide to fortify their foundations, particularly during the pivotal phases of elections.

Scholars increasingly argue that electoral processes have the potential to exacerbate political polarization and human rights violations in democratically ‘deficient’ systems. They acknowledge a shifting paradigm within democracies, where certain political actors and parties, such as Donald Trump and his followers, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and ​​Sakurai Makoto are increasingly propelled toward violent electoral strategies. This deviation from conventional expectations signifies a changing landscape, where violence and hate speech rhetoric within democratic frameworks is deemed an almost ‘viable’ and influential political strategy. As elections become more prevalent worldwide, citizens must be equipped with an understanding of the standards governing their governments to navigate the complex web of soft domestic terrorism that may accompany the democratic process.


The dissemination of hate speech, propaganda, fake news, and even violence by candidates seeking electoral victory demands vigilant acknowledgment and counterstrategies. Democracy thrives on mass participation, ensuring diverse voices contribute to decision-making. However, disenfranchised communities, a historical pattern in countries like the United States, face systemic barriers that breed disheartenment and apathy. The challenge lies in overcoming these obstacles, for large voter turnout is pivotal in shaping the democratic process. Safeguarding citizens from soft domestic terrorism becomes imperative, particularly where historical disenfranchisement fosters a perception of futility in participating. This acknowledgement of practical realities is paramount to fostering a more inclusive and resilient democracy, where political rivalries do not come at the expense of voters’ lives or dignity.

In the democratic milieu, citizens should possess the right to cast their votes in an atmosphere characterized by peace and security. Threats or violence tarnishing the act of voting imperil the very essence of democracy. As Ursula Daxecker aptly suggests, the recurrent utilization of violence during elections implies an unconsolidated democracy, where political elites have the flexibility to employ various manipulation strategies, and the presence of institutional biases, like uneven electoral apportionment, influences elites to resort to more immediate and overt manipulation tactics, such as pre-election violence. This research, by comprehending nuanced distinctions, strives to offer valuable insights into the intricate dynamics influencing the prevalence of such threats. This understanding, in turn, holds the potential to contribute to judicious strategies aimed at addressing and mitigating soft domestic terrorism in democratic societies. Timely as we stand on the cusp of national elections in India and the United States, scheduled for April and November, respectively, the research underscores the urgency of fortifying democratic foundations. The call is not merely to preserve democracy but to evolve it, adapt it, and ensure its resilience against the formidable challenges posed by soft domestic terrorism.

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